Restaurant El Interno in Cartagena, Colombia isn't just a great place for dinner—it's also changing lives.
At the heart of the colonial-era Old City in Cartagena, Colombia, a sign, hand-lettered onto a blank wall, beckons passersby. Segundas Oportunidades, it reads. Second Chances. An arrow points to a massive metal door, painted in bright pink. Inside? El Interno, a restaurant, one of the most talked-about restaurants in town. This could have something to do with the fact that it is located inside a women's prison.
Founded by Johana Bahamón, a Colombian actress who runs a foundation called Acción Interna, the restaurant seats sixty people, and within a very short period of time has managed to attract some of Colombia's top celebrities, right up to the President, Juan Manuel Santos. Interno employs a staff of fifteen, pulled almost entirely from a pool of about 150 convicts currently housed inside the small (and crowded) San Diego prison. To really kick things up a notch, Bahamón enlisted Michelin-starred chef Koldo Miranda to help train the inmates. The idea for the restaurant, she says, came to her after her first foray into Colombia's penal system, when she was asked to judge a prison beauty contest.
"Because of the movies, everyone thinks they know what prison life is like," she told NBC News in a recent interview. "But the reality is different; I saw their struggle to survive and get through the day."
A few years later, Interno was up and running. The restaurant caters to a mix of locals, cruise ship passengers and other travelers, most of them likely unaware of the presence of a prison inside the city's prime tourist zone. A set menu is offered—three courses and a juice—for $30; the decor is festive, cheerful; dishes are gorgeously plated, and for each course, you are offered three choices, from a coconut prawn appetizer (served with local root vegetables) to the hearty, local specialty Posta Negra, or black beef. (It's much better than it sounds.)
The venture has been so well-received, Bahamón's foundation is putting together plans for another restaurant. This one will be called Externa, or outside. This one will also be staffed with prisoners. Scratch that—ex-prisoners.